At Large  July 24, 2023  Megan D Robinson

Why You Need to Know About Sol LeWitt

Via Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Sculpture Park’s PACCAR Pavilion in Seattle, Washington was transformed in 2014 into a canvas for Sol LeWitt’s Seven cubes with color ink washes superimposed.

Regarded as a founder of both the conceptual and minimalist art movements, American artist Solomon "Sol" LeWitt (1928–2007) used geometric forms, skeletal cubes, lines and curves, along with abstract swathes of color to explore form, ephemerality, and positive and negative space. Many of his structures and murals used exact ratios, and were installed using mathematical patterns.

Born in Connecticut, to Russian Jewish immigrants, LeWitt got a BFA from Syracuse University in 1949, after which, he traveled to Europe where he was exposed to the paintings of Old Masters. In 1953, after serving in the Korean War, LeWitt moved to New York City where he took illustration classes and worked as a graphic designer for magazines and a local architectural firm. 

In 1960, Lewitt started working nights at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he met artists Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin, and Robert Mangold. Influenced by Robert Rauschenberg and Josef Albers, as well as late 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s studies on sequence and locomotion, LeWitt developed his highly conceptual approach to art making. 

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sol Lewitt, Tower, 1984. Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa

He went on to co-found the nonprofit Printed Matter, Inc. in 1976 with writer and art critic Lucy Lippard. LeWitt’s art and philosophy deeply influenced both his peers and younger artists. During the late 1960s, he taught at a number of New York schools, including New York University and the School of Visual Arts. In 1980, LeWitt traveled to Italy. Upon his return to the U.S., he settled in Chester, Connecticut, which would become his primary place of residence.

While LeWitt became famous in the late 1960s for his wall drawings and "structures" (a term he preferred to "sculptures"), as an artist, he utilized a variety of mediums, including drawing, printmaking, painting, photography, and bookmaking. A prolific artist, LeWitt produced over 50 art books, hundreds of works on paper, numerous structures, and over 1,200 geometric wall drawings.

For the wall drawings, LeWitt would create the artistic concept and then provided detailed instructions for each installation, which would be executed by someone else on site. In allowing other draftsmen to execute his works, according to his plans and diagrams, LeWitt freed himself from the time-consuming aspect of the drawings. But these works also highlighted his belief that the art work was the conception of the idea, and not the execution of it. He also rejected the significance of the artist’s hand in the creation of a work.

Via Wikimedia Commons

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #1152 Whirls and Twirls, 2005.

Wall drawings would be installed and removed for exhibitions, and are still being created today based on his instructions. This kind of art is often called “instruction-based art.” 

LeWitt’s first wall drawings were done in graphite, then in crayon. Over time, the materials evolved to include colored pencil, vibrant India ink washes, and brilliantly colored acrylic paint. His first wall drawing installation was in 1968 at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, at an exhibition to benefit the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Since then, thousands of LeWitt's wall drawings have been installed at art venues around the world. 

Via Wikimedia Commons

This work is an example of LeWitt's "Modular Cube" structures. The negative space between the beams are in an 8/5/1 ratio with the width of the material.

During his trip to Italy in the 1980’s, Lewitt was exposed to Renaissance frescoes. Influenced by Giotto, he explored using gouache in his paintings. After his Italian trip, his line work also became more fluid and exuberant.

The subject of hundreds of solo exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world since 1965, LeWitt was also an avid collector of other artists’ work. His collection included musical scores, 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, and contemporary artists. 

About the Author

Megan D Robinson

Megan D Robinson writes for Art & Object and the Iowa Source.

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